College eligibility rules: an ongoing discussion

College eligibility rules: an ongoing discussion

With recent concerns from the USA Rugby community about collegiate eligibility rules and their application to U.S. Military personnel, I sat down with USA Rugby Director of College Rugby Rich Cortez to talk about the player eligibility rules and the effort being made by some people to revise them.

To fully understand the rationale behind current eligibility rules, it’s important to first read this short article that was produced by the College Eligibility Committee when the rules were initially adopted.

“Teams now have the resources to actively recruit student athletes that specifically fit these regulatory exceptions and thereby potentially gain a competitive advantage,” wrote the former Collegiate Eligibility Committee Chair. “While clearly that was not the intent of the existing regulations, that is the reality of today’s college rugby world.

“While the issues are clearly identifiable, finding a suitable solution is much more difficult.”

After several long phone conversations, the following is a summary of the points that Rich spoke about:

  • There currently is a push to revise the rules governing college eligibility. A petition with several hundred signatures has been submitted to USA Rugby. The proposal on the table is that for every year of military service, a player gains back a year of eligibility. The intent of the petitioners is to give full college eligibility to military members who leave active duty to attend college and play rugby.
  • Requests for eligibility exceptions are reviewed and approved or denied by The College Eligibility Committee. The current members of the Committee are Rich Cortez, Michele Yarbrough, James Fonda, and Alan Osur.
  • The Committee also reviews eligibility rules annually based on input from membership, and the number of waiver requests received for a certain kind of activity; such as military service, church service, or injury. When needed, the Eligibility Committee makes recommendations to the College Management Council. The Management Council reviews all recommendations and makes decisions about changes to eligibility. If warranted, the Council creates the language for the rule revision.
  • Current members of the College Management Council are Pete Seccia (Chair), Kevin Battle, Craig Brown, James Farrar, Nancy Kechner, Bill Lucas, Ellen Owens, MaryBeth Mathews, Bill Sexton, Matt Trenary, Michele Yarborough, Gray Zischke and Alex Magleby (Male Int. Athlete).
  • The selection process to serve on the CMC will soon be changing to an election whereby CMC representatives will be elected from at least 8 regions throughout the country, by those regions individually. The elected Council members will be expected to represent the teams in their regions (men & women, all divisions) but act in the best interests of the college game from a national viewpoint.

After explaining the structure and function of the committee and council, Cortez went on to explain their challenges. A significant issue that impacts the development of eligibility rules is the cost and complexity of administering the rules. To illustrate this, consider this hypothetical scenario. Suppose that the eligibility rules were very general and only two conditions must be met:

  1. Must be registered as a full time student
  2. Maximum of 5 years of eligibility for college rugby

On face value, these rules sound reasonable. The problem is; how could the rules be enforced? Imagine the cost and effort that would be required to research each player and confirm their eligibility.

Some students will have taken college classes at community colleges, or colleges that do not offer a rugby program. There will be students who waited years to start college after graduating high school and who may be substantially older than most college rugby players. There will be former military students and some of them will have attended college while on active duty. There will be foreign students of various ages who come here on student visas.

Based on a quick tally, the number of athletes petitioning for eligibility would potentially reach in the thousands. The question may not be should these athletes be eligible, but who would be responsible for verifying their status. With such broad rules for eligibility, it would be difficult for the committee and council in its current state to be responsible for screening thousands of players every year.

Currently, USA Rugby and the Universities themselves do not have the budget or personnel that would be necessary to research the eligibility of large numbers of players. Thus, the rules that the council develops must be developed so that they can easily be understood by everyone involved, and applied effectively.

Cortez emphasized that the Committee will always consider the best ways to ensure fairness and player welfare in the rapidly changing and competitive environment that is today’s collegiate rugby.

Cortez believes that “the discussion about college eligibility is healthy,” assuring me that the College Management Council recognizes that the rules may need to be adjusted from time to time, and will surely be in discussion in the coming weeks.

“The College Management Council is open to changes as the game evolves,” said Cortez.

Collegiate eligibility is the newest hot-button discussion in a sea of change in American college rugby. With growth comes growing pains, and USA Rugby will need to continue to adapt and be open to change. Cortez and the entire College Management Council are aware of the difficulties with college eligibility but know there are steps to be taken and are open to their options.

What are your thoughts? How does USA Rugby solve the issue of keeping guidelines fair with given resources?

Dave McFadden is a writer and independent contributor to Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Comments (24)

  • Guest - rugbydoug

    In reply to: Guest - Simon

    Simon -- I did EXACTLY that. My favorite teammates were farmers, teachers, and factory guys and a guy who claimed he learned how to play rugby on an aircraft carrier in the Navy. That was the allure and fun of the game.

  • Guest - rugbydoug

    I played my college rugby long ago and for a long time (undergrad, grad school and as a working guy on a college team) as a club sport. I played against and with guys older and bigger and from different backgrounds, from different countries and it was fun. And I played against several of the original Eagles. My point: College rugby has become this over-managed and over-regulated endeavor which it seems all of rugby in the US has become. Unfortunately for all of that, we have not become a very good rugby nation. We play like football players trying to play rugby not rugby players playing rugby. We need MORE club teams, fewer college teams because the quality of college rugby is not good enough to get it done. In Europe 18 to 22 year-old guys are playing CLUB rugby not college.....

  • Guest - Dave C

    Age should not be an issue, USA just capped an 18 year old, teenagers across the world are playing professional rugby. As long as there is a manageable / cost efficient process in place we should let them play. Playing against stronger opposition makes you better not worse, just because someone is older does not mean they are a better player which will get them a slot in the team.
    Let’s work together to get the highest level of performance teams out on the field, which will enable us to grow and raise the profile of the game to the highest possible level.
    I salute all service members, especially the ones who wish to come and play on the rugby field of combat.

  • Guest - Chilly

    I see no reason why they can not adopt the same rules as the NCAA, five years to play four from the date you start college and use the same exemptions they use for classed taken while in High School or otherwise. I question if anyone but the College Rugby Elite thought the rule needed changing. Only schools like Cal that already have a competitive advantage would worry about loosing it to a school that attracts older (non-traditional) students. In fact the original rule was changed because San Diego State won the national championship with a couple of guys that were in their late twenties. This is just more of the same. Do any other club sports on college campuses worry about this sort of thing?

  • Guest - DWC

    Perhaps this will be another decision point for the colleges to abandon USAR (as the D2 College Clubs almost did this summer). Do they need USAR? No. Colleges are insured or self-insured and their students are generally required to have health insurance. Referees can get match coverage via NASO. No need for the broken USAR.

  • Guest - Reality Check

    There are maybe 350 to 400 college rugby clubs in the USA with less than 1% have a high performance environment (coaching, strength and condition, nutrition, etc). A grown man playing in a team within that 1% doesn't matter because the younger players are as physically mature as a grown man. In the other 99% of the college clubs without a high performance environment with poor coaching and relaxed training the physicality of a grown man playing 18 year olds is an issue. I don't get why a guy wants to play college rugby when he is in his mid to late 20s. There are almost as many men's clubs as college clubs so just man up play with the men.

  • Guest - Kent oszmanski

    I learned to play rugby at college at age of 22 when i was released from my military service. There were several players that were the same age as i was for whatever reason. Every active duty service member gets a dd214 upon release from active duty this documents the service members record of service and provides access to veterans benefits. the document can be stored on your mobile device and shown prior to game time its as simple as that. I like the NSCRO method of self policing also reduces the strain on USA Rugby to enforce. Its an easy fix with technology. Beat Canada

  • Guest - Wrong Fight

    Shouldn't all you rugby weekend warriors who served in the armed forces be fighting for veteran benefits, which are a total mess, and not worrying if you can dump truck a teenager on the rugby field while getting your degree?

  • Guest - Springbok

    If you are a University student, no matter what the age you should be eligible to play for your Uni team. It works like this in South Africa. In fact most Springbok players come from one University. The University of Stellenbosch. Stellenbosch also has strong internal hostel leagues with different divisions based on skill levels. The top hostels are highly competitive. I was of course in the Kaas en Wyn Liga (The Cheese and Wine League), we didn't eat much cheese though.

  • Guest - Marine Bill

    I can leave the lobbying for increased VA benefits to those on Capitol Hill. There are more than enough advocates supporting the cause. The ideal I support of former service members, and the other exceptions I mentioned, playing rugby at the collegiate-level is not so they can pound and 18 year old young man/woman into the ground, but share their camaraderie and experiences with these young men and women.

    When I completed my first six years of service I was 23 years old and weighed 185lbs. I would hardly consider my age or size an advantage over some of the young men entering college out of high school. What I did have was a worldly experience from all my travels. I would have enjoyed sharing my experiences, both rugby and educational, with the younger players on a college squad. The mentorship from young and old is one of the most alluring aspects of rugby.

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